Sweeter deal for farmers
Over the last decade, this approach has paid dividends for Venkat, a sugarcane farmer from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He’s increased the spacing between the rows of cane, growing legumes, spices and oil seed crops in between: the other crops, grown in rotation, add nutrients to the soil while providing an additional income. He’s switched from chemical fertilizers to using manure from his cows and goats: his costs have fallen while his yields have remained steady. He’s stopped burning crop residues and uses them as a mulch instead: now he doesn’t need to water so often, the plants are resilient to drought, and beneficial microorganisms multiply beneath.
“The farmer who farms this way saves his land,” says Venkat. “In the past using fertilizer increased yields, but now soil is tired and fertilizer makes things worse. These methods reclaim the soil.”
The reduced need for irrigation is also a major benefit – not just for environmental reasons in this water-stressed area, but for Venkat’s electricity bill. “We’ve gone from having to irrigate once every three or four days to once every six or seven. That’s a saving of 30,000 rupees (US$450) per year.”
All in all, Venkat has a thriving farm, a better income, and even more time to spend with his family without laborious tasks like watering and burning. So why aren’t more cane growers farming this way?
“Farmers have become conditioned,” believes Venkat. “Changing their mindset is the biggest challenge.” It’s a challenge that EID Parry, the company that buys Venkat’s sugarcane, is seeking to address.
“To keep our business profitable we need to ensure our suppliers are profitable and get good yields year after year,” says Madhavan Gopalakrishnan, the company’s marketing manager. “Soils in this country are getting tired. There’s too much cropping, too much chemical fertilizer, too much water being used, and that results in diminishing returns for the farmers.”
With around 100,000 smallholders supplying the company’s five mills in Tamil Nadu, the company employs a small army of agricultural extension officers, each covering an area of around 200 hectares. They are introducing farmers to practices like composting and intercropping, and teaching them to increase the precision of their fertilizer and water use based on scientific soil analysis.
“Each farmer is given a diary where they record what inputs they are using, and a crop calendar that tells them what they need to do and when,” explains Dr Raghu, EID Parry’s head of research and development.
EID Parry has also developed biological controls for common sugarcane pests, which it encourages farmers to use in place of chemical pesticides. “These have led to increased yields wherever they have been used,” Dr Raghu says.
In collaboration with Rabobank, WWF is also addressing water sustainability and the carbon footprint of Indian sugarcane manufacturer EID Parry. The project aims to implement sustainable practices in order to mitigate the environmental risks related to sugarcane production, making sustainability the core of its business strategy.
3.9% of global sugarcane production is Bonsucro certified (August 2016)
- Habitat conversion
- Soil erosion and degradation
- Agrochemical use
- Water use and pollution
- Greenhouse gas emissions
- Labor and land tenure rights, health, payment (minimum wage and contracts) and training of workers.
- Potential to reduce habitat destruction and biodiversity loss in some of Earth’s most precious natural places
- Greenhouse gas avoidance and mitigation through biofuel production for fuel and plastics
- Improve water quality and availability
- Improve livelihoods.
Certified firstsRecently, the company has taken these efforts a step further by aligning its farm management guidelines with Bonsucro – the global standard for sustainable sugar production. In 2015, its Pugular mill in Tamil Nadu became the first certified mill in Asia – and the first anywhere in the world that sources from smallholders.
To date, around 250 of the 20,000 farmers who supply the mill have been verified as meeting the standard, but the company is increasing this number – through training, visits to demonstration farms like Venkat’s, and rolling out practices in line with Bonsucro principles and criteria. It has a strong commercial incentive too: a number of its international customers, including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Ferrero - have committed to sourcing only Bonsucro-certified sugar by 2020. For many suppliers, that’s a big ask – but EID Parry is already in a strong position to deliver.
“More sustainable farming has always been part of our DNA, and Bonsucro can help guide us towards it,” says Madhavan. “It’s a way to secure our supplies, and to ensure our sales.”
Across our global food and beverage business, we strive to source agricultural raw materials and ingredients in a way that increases environmentally responsible practices, improves crop yields and growers livelihoods and advances respect for human rights. Bonsucro is our preferred certification to make progress on our commitment to source 100% sustainable cane sugar by 2020 because it does just that. And it’s one that supports and captures continuous improvement in farms of all sizes.
In India, we have already demonstrated the ability to build capacity by actively engaging with our suppliers, helping to provide a greater understanding of how to implement the Bonsucro Standard. This is work we intend to substantially increase.